By the end of the eighteenth century, the church of Geneva had become a mere shadow of its former glory. The pulpit of John Calvin no longer thundered with the bold truths of the Protestant Reformation. It no longer broadcast the Good News of the Scriptures. Instead, it whimpered with the uncertain themes of the Enlightenment. Somehow, it had been mesmerized by the tired and monotonous tones of unitarianism and liberalism. Even the famed Genevan Academy, founded by Theodore Beza, had abandoned the teaching of the Scriptures opting instead for the more fashionable philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca.
As a result, Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigne (1794–1872) was entirely unaware of Geneva’s remarkable Calvinistic legacy, despite the fact that he was born, baptized, raised, educated, and even ordained there. Indeed, during his formal theological training at the once vibrant Academy, he never actually came into contact with the Bible — much less Calvin’s Bible-centered worldview. “In four years,” he later admitted, “not one hour was consecrated to the study of the Scriptures.”
It was not until the Scottish evangelist, Robert Haldane, came to the city during the early days of the Réveil (the great revival that swept across the European continent during the first two decades of the nineteenth century) that Merle ever heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. Nevertheless, Merle was almost instantly persuaded of the truth and became an enthusiastic Christian in the Calvinist tradition, and he became an ardent disciple of Robert Haldane.
When Haldane left Geneva to continue his continental ministry, Merle embarked on a tour of the great Reformation sites in Germany. He was able to attend the tercentenary celebrations of Luther’s Reformation in Eisenach and Wittenberg. He was astonished by the rich inheritance of Protestantism — an inheritance with which he was altogether unfamiliar. Apparently, it was then when he became fascinated with the story of that great lost legacy — the story of the Reformation and its heroes. At that point, he began to plan how he might record the history of the Reformation and the good providence of God in the flowering of Western freedom, prosperity, and opportunity.
In 1831, when a nationalist revolution split the Dutch nation into Belgium and the Netherlands, Merle returned to Geneva to help revive the city’s Calvinistic culture, to restore the curriculum of the Academy, and to begin the task of writing his historical magnum opus.
Merle’s History of the Reformation included twenty-one volumes in three different series released between 1835 and 1878 (six years after his death). According to Philip Schaff, the vast and sprawling work was “a monumental achievement” that “altered the vision of the church.” The various volumes “had a wider circulation than any other books on church history.” At one point, the English language editions actually out-sold the Waverly Novels of Sir Walter Scott and the sermons of Thomas Chalmers — an astonishing feat. As a result, Schaff argues that Merle became “the most important historian of the Reformation for Evangelicals.”
Contrary to the prevailing trends of rationalism, Merle emphasized three elements in his writing. The first element was what he called the “providential aspect.” He desired to show the direct hand of God in the affairs of men and nations. He followed the rules of careful academic investigation. His accounts were always well documented and thoroughly researched. But, he never prejudiced the principles of faith in his work. He always kept before him the notion that history is His story.
The second element Merle emphasized in his writing was what he called the “covenantal aspect.” He yearned to record the response of men and nations to the divine activity. He sought to highlight the means by which covenantal promises were fulfilled in the course of time. He was determined to show just how God has used ordinary men and movements for His great redemptive purposes.
Third, Merle emphasized what he called the “narrative aspect.” He wanted the story of history to be told as a story with a vigorous and lively style that captured the adventure of God’s redemptive purposes. He wanted to capture the character and vitality of those real life men who shaped history in accord with God’s will.
Merle argued that it was the “duty of the historian to combine these elements in the picture he presents to his readers.” By all accounts his massive history successfully did that and more. It was substantive, theological, lively, and thorough — a far cry from almost anything that had been written about the Reformation up to that time.
The result was that Merle produced a record of church history written in “the hope of the resurrection.” Just as Christ was resurrected by the good providence of God in accord with His covenant promises, Merle hoped that a brisk account of the Lord’s ongoing providential and covenantal work in the world might be useful in raising the church to new life as well.